Take head, neck cancer symptoms seriously - WSMV News 4

Take head, neck cancer symptoms seriously

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Jim Phillips holds up a sign thanking doctors for their cancer care. (Source: WOIO) Jim Phillips holds up a sign thanking doctors for their cancer care. (Source: WOIO)

You don't hear much about it, but head and neck cancer impacts tens of thousands of people a year.

This is National Head and Neck Cancer Awareness week. It's a campaign that gets bigger every year and for good reason.

Head and neck cancer is easily diagnosed and treated, but the symptoms can be easily written off as nothing to worry about.

57-year-old Jim Phillips knows about it all too well. With a big smile on his face in his most recent triathlon finish picture, he explains it also marks the finish of his bout with cancer. 

"I guess it was sort of my gesture of hope," Phillips said. "Hard to articulate I was pretty happy." 

A critical care doctor at the Cleveland Clinic himself, he would never see it coming where he would have to turn to colleagues to save his life from, of all things, neck cancer. 

He says after a work one day a couple years ago, when he was stretching, as he pushes his finger up against the right side of his neck, he says there was "just a golf ball size area here." He got it checked out right away and a week later, his worst fears confirmed a cancer diagnosis. 

"It's obviously not what someone has planned, to find out they have a diagnosis like that," Phillips said. "It's a mental transition to accept a new reality."

It's what Jim's doctor, Dr. Brian Burkey, M.D. of the Cleveland Clinic, is seeing way too much of these days -- head and neck cancers making up, he says, perhaps the third leading type of cancer in the U.S.

"It does grow relatively quickly so the vast majority of people you know who have cancer will succumb to that cancer if not treated in a year or two," he said.

That's why he stresses self exams, starting with the mouth, where he suggests checking for any abnormalities of the lining. It's so important these days because it's often where the sexually transmitted, cancer causing HPV is popping up.

Then, the neck area is where you search for any strange-feeling lumps, running your fingers from your jaw back toward your ears, both above and below the jaw line. He also says to feel around the rest of your neck down toward the top of your chest. But there are also symptoms to consider including hoarseness, difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing, and mouth bleeding. 

"Part of the reason I see so many advanced cancers is because people ignore them," Dr. Burkey said. "Some doctors think maybe it's just an infection and give them antibiotics and the patients don't want to go back and see their doctor."

With that he adds, if you feel something is just not right, as Jim can tell you, make sure you get it checked out thoroughly. He's so glad he did as Dr. Burkey sends him on his way from his latest check up saying, "all right, everything looks real good!"  

Burkey suggests seeing an ear, nose and throat doctor if you notice something unusual or any of the mentioned symptoms last longer than two weeks. If it's something you are worried about in your mouth, he suggests starting with the dentist.
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